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Preparing Your Students for Recitals (Part 2)

March 15, 2010
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Recitals are a wonderful way for students to gain experience and proficiency in performing.  There are many elements to learn when beginning to participate in recitals.  Helping your students know what to expect and providing them with many recital “practice” opportunities will create comfortable and confident performers.   Below is part 2 of 3 posts regarding preparing your students for recitals.

Note: in this article the pronoun “her” is used for simplicity’s sake to refer to a single student, but no gender bias is intended or implied.

(Part 2) Elements of Emotion

(1) Receiving compliments and praise. Shy students and/or students who have made mistakes in their performance sometimes do not know how to graciously accept compliments and praise after the recital.  But, a true “performer” needs to accept compliments and say “thank you” no matter how she personally feels about her performance — it’s just part of performance etiquette.  Professional “performers” do not let on that mistakes have occurred (even if everyone knows there were mistakes).  So, in training your students to be good performers it is essential to provide your students with the opportunity to practice graciously accepting compliments.

To practice this, take time during regular lessons to compliment your student on something that she has played for you — whether there were mistakes or not — and see how she reacts.  Teach her to say “thank you” and to smile or shake hands when appropriate.  If you practice this regularly it will in time become automatic for her to do.

Another tip to provide to your students is to let them know that many times an audience will NOT be aware of any mistakes that occurred in the performance simply because the audience does not know the piece and/or is not proficient in music.  For a student to cringe or flinch during the performance or to look down-trodden after a performance will only clue in the audience that something went wrong.  The appearance of confidence and being pleased with the performance will cover up a myriad of musical sins for an audience!  🙂

(2) Learning how to deal with the fear and stress of performing. Not everyone is a natural born performer.  Shy students, young students, new students, ill-prepared students, and students with low self-esteem can sometimes experience extreme fear and stress when required to perform in public.  A display of compassion and sympathy are vitally important when dealing with a student in this situation!  The best way to help your student overcome stage fright is to teach her techniques for dealing with performance anxiety.  Some typical methods include deep breathing, meditation, focusing/mentally picturing the piece, visualizing a successful and happy outcome, pretending to be all alone, thinking about happy thoughts, etc.

Above and beyond those techniques sometimes all that is required, in helping a student to overcome the fear of performing, is to provide many/frequent opportunities to “practice perform” in front of small and familiar audiences.  Oft times when a student becomes comfortable and confident performing in front of small and familiar groups it becomes easier to perform in larger and less familiar groups (as is likely to be the case at a “real” recital).  Familiarity with performing itself may be all that is required.  In this case, hosting a variety of mini-recitals for you student is a fabulous idea.  Mini-recitals can be done with a small group of students who perform for each other (like group lessons or studio workshops), one or two students and their families, a small group of your student’s friends, etc.  Many mini-recitals provides your student with multiple opportunities to perform and become comfortable with the piece that she will be performing at the main recital.  If there are any problems in the mini-recitals then it gives your student the opportunity to fix/address them before the main event.

Unfortunately there will be times when you have gone through all of the options above with your student and she still continues to have fear and stress in relation to performing.  If this is the case then consider discussing with her parents a technique called “EFT” (emotional freedom technique).  According to Gary Craig (who is the founder of EFT), “EFT is an emotional version of acupuncture wherein we stimulate certain meridian points by tapping on them with our fingertips.  Clearing away the fear and stress associated with the idea of performing will help a student to play with confidence anew.

(3) Dealing with mistakes.  Prior to a recital remind your students that no one is perfect and that mistakes are a normal part of learning and performing music.  I often share with my students examples of famous performers who have made mistakes and “survived.”  :-)  For example, I will tell them about the time that Alicia de Larrocha missed the final note in her piece, part of a long descending scale, during a concert.  She stuck her tongue out — making light of the situation (though of course, I suggest to my students that they keep their tongues in).  Or, I will share various examples of professors at my University who made mistakes in concert and how they gracefully pulled it off.  Or, I will share with them experiences that have happened to me during a performance.  After all, it is not the mistake that matters, but what a student does with the mistake that will ensure a good performance.  Remind students that is it never OK to just stop playing, or to go back and start over from the beginning, or to say out loud “oh no, oops, darn it, etc,” or to repeat the same measure over and over in hopes that they’ll remember what comes next!  Instead, the goal is to KEEP GOING all the way to the end no matter what happens.

Many mistakes that occur in recitals are due to errors in practicing or mistakes that went unnoticed during the lesson.  However, there are times that completely unexpected mistakes can occur in a performance, things which have never been problems for your student before.  However, there are ways to help your student thoroughly prepare their pieces, and even for the unexpected, for performance.  For instance:

(A). If your student forgets something in her piece then she needs to jump to the next part in her piece that she can remember (this will be discussed further in an upcoming blog post entitled “performance strategies”).

(B). If your student misses a note it’s simply not a big deal.  Practice the technique of “keep going” in lessons and a student will learn to let the minor note errors slip by without concern in a recital.  (also to be discussed in an upcoming blog post entitled “performance strategies”).
(C). If you student starts to play a section out of order teach her to finish that section and then either keep going forward from that point or to seamlessly go back to the section she missed and play through from that point.  As long as your student doesn’t let on with facial expressions that something went wrong chances are the audience will never know!

The key to pulling off mistakes during a recital is simply to make it SOUND like that’s how it was meant to be.  Most of the audience will never know a mistake occurred if the student doesn’t broadcast the mistake through body language, verbal cues, facial expressions, or repetition of the problem while performing.  Remind a student that only she, her teacher, and possibly her parents will really know how the piece is supposed to sound.  The audience will always enjoy the experience so long as it SOUNDS and LOOKS like that is the way it was supposed to occur.  Help students learn to let mistakes roll off their backs and keep going.  That’s the key to a successful recital!

Please note:  These techniques are designed to help a student who has already learned her piece and who is preparing for a recital.  It is not appropriate to teach a student who is just learning a new piece to ignore her mistakes.  Rather, when a student is just learning a piece it is vitally important to fix mistakes right away!

When preparing students for recitals keep in mind that it is important to provide them with the BEST chance of success at every opportunity.  Help create opportunities for your students to learn early on that sharing music with others can be a highly rewarding and exciting experience (and not something to be feared)!
Look for our upcoming blog post entitled Preparing Your Students for Recitals (Part 3) — “Final Preparations” on April 1, 2010.

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